Schools, social media and relationships

All power to the Dunedin secondary schools co-ordinating to tackle the escalating issue of how social media and pornography are shaping how young people see healthy relationships and how they should behave socially. What a task they have before them.

Relationships and social behaviour have always been challenging. This has been even more fraught for teenagers venturing towards and into the adult world.

It did seem, though, that some progress had been made in the past 60 years, albeit there was a long way to go.

There are also questions about how superficial changes were and how deeply they spread across society.

The #MeToo movement, in particular, has made plain the rampant abuse and misogyny at the most prominent levels.

Now, as the 21st century advances, Western society is experiencing unprecedented and escalating challenges because of social media and the internet.

They have revolutionised relationships as well as providing quick and easy access to toxic content and pornography.

Smartphones became central to teenage lives, upending many traditional interactions.

Access to unhealthy relationships and pornography is immediate, while at the same time romanticised and unrealistic and impossible images are also portrayed.

Jealousy and insecurity are promoted. Perceptions of intimacy are distorted.

Snapchat, Instagram and other platforms plus texting, emojis and a world of likes and comments have encouraged brief and superficial interactions while reducing the importance of face-to-face relationships.

An influencer like Andrew Tate could spread extreme misogyny telling boys that women belong in the home, that violence is acceptable, that women contribute towards rape. One British survey last year found eight in 10 British 16 and 17-year-olds had viewed his content. Many revel in its toxic slant. Appalling attitudes are legitimised.

Against this wider background, four Dunedin schools, St Hilda’s Collegiate School, Otago Boys’ High School, King’s High School and John McGlashan College, have formed a "community of practice" to share approaches to work on reducing sexual harm caused by pornography and social media.

University of Otago Associate professor Melanie Beres (centre) talks with Dunedin principals...
University of Otago Associate professor Melanie Beres (centre) talks with Dunedin principals about their "community of practice" proposal last week. They are (from left) Otago Boys' High School rector Richard Hall, John McGlashan College principal Neil Garry, King's High School rector Nick McIvor and St Hilda's Collegiate School principal Jackie Barron. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
Once again, schools are bearing the brunt of wider societal issues and changes. Once again, they are finding it necessary to step up because it is their pupils who are damaged and scarred.

The matter will surprise next to no-one. What to do about them becomes the test.

That the Dunedin collaboration began from a pupil initiative was positive. St Hilda’s principal Jackie Barron said it started after a call for help from senior pupils increasingly concerned about the issue late last year. The four schools are now getting together to provide the right messages for what a healthy relationship might look like and acknowledge the harm done to young women through sexual assault and violence.

The problem is not new. Unsurprisingly, it has been escalating.

Each school will bring its own experiences and expertise to share. Other Dunedin schools are interested, and the "community of practice" could easily spread around the country.

No doubt, too, other New Zealand secondary schools will be going through the same challenges and will have programmes, strategies and ideas.

As John McGlashan principal Neil Garry said, adding a research-based approach would also contribute to what was already being done. It makes sense to tap into University of Otago expertise, and the work is being facilitated by sociology, gender studies and criminology associate professor Melanie Beres.

She has more than 25 years’ experience in sexual harm prevention research. She said programmes such as discussion on consent would only be part of the approach.

The issue was complex, and she said an approach involving the whole community was needed to create change. Schools had inherited it as well as perpetuating it.

Schools always have many worthwhile tasks to tackle with limited time and resources. They cannot cover core curriculum plus everything else they would like as they endeavour to foster a rounded education and rounded decent citizens.

The relationship and pornography harm caused by today’s social media world, however, is such that the efforts and collaboration of schools in this space are most welcome.